Redesign on a Dime

Budgets May Be Tight, but with the Right Tricks and Tools, a New Look Can Be in Your Venue’s Future

There’s only so long a bar or club can reign as the newest, hottest, must-visit place in town. Call it natural selection, but patrons have a tendency to constantly seek out something different. They need a steady fix of something new, and a humdrum concept just won’t cut it. It’s a challenge even the most well-schooled professionals face, and quite frankly it’s a dilemma that’s almost impossible to escape. So it’s critical to renew your venue regularly to keep guests coming back.

Vermillion Lounge

With the fickle economy, updating your outlet may seem impossible, but the truth is, it’s not. There are ways to refresh and reinvigorate a venue that won’t break the bank but will make it seem like you’ve invested a lot.

“In this competitive arena, operators are under pressure to always have a fresh perspective for their guests so they don’t become a ‘has-been’ place,” says New York City-based restaurant consultant Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates. That’s why it’s important to upgrade the experience for the guests, but not kill your bottom line by doing it, she says.

“For nightclub owners, ROI is most important,” agrees Boris Zhuravel, director of business development with Modern Line Furniture. “You lose the ability to attract patrons when people get tired of your look. Plus, when you have a mismatch between quality of décor and prices, you have to refresh the look of the bar to keep a synergy between the prices and environment.”
He suggests opting for furnishings that can be moved around quickly and easily to change the setup of a place or create intimate nooks that allow people to enjoy a space on their terms.

There are other easy tricks to freshen up the place, Spiegel adds. Take the bar, for example. If serving Mojitos, add some displays of fresh mint to the bar, or some bowls with fresh squeezable fruits like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits for Cosmopolitans and Screwdrivers. “It’s the same case if you’re using basil. Scatter some plants around the bar for added effect,” she says. “It’s inexpensive and practical because it is a product you’ll be using anyway.”
She also suggests simple ideas like purchasing new flatware, linens and tabletops, as the table where dining guests focus much of their attention.
Sometimes, however, more extensive efforts are in order, even if resources are thin. Check out what these two venues accomplished on a shoestring budget.

High Impact on a Low Budget

According to Jennifer Duchene, decorator and home makeover expert with Lift Your Spirits Home Transformations (, there are plenty of ways to make some high impact changes at your venue without killing your budget. 

Theme: If you have an overarching concept, try shopping eBay, The Freecycle Network, Craigslist or thrift stores for low cost elements matching your theme. “Say your theme is time,” Duchene suggests. “You can draw and paint a mural on the wall or find cheap stick-ons or cutouts, or cover a wall in dime store clocks. If your theme is, say, hats and shirts, you can get free or cheap clothes or use thrift store finds to decorate — like a wall of hats.”


Paint: Color is a cheap way to change anything. For example, rich, dark colors look good at night. You can even spray paint existing furnishings or add a new fabric to upholster bar stools for a fresh look.


Lighting: Use candlelight or firelight to create mood. Or, create new lampshades; they can be made out of any heatproof material and give the impression that you bought new lamps.


Fabric: Fabric is another inexpensive material that can create a unique look. Cover wall openings or windows with yards of sale fabric. “IKEA sells the rods you can attach to ceiling,” Duchene says. “If you don’t sew, you can iron on hems and folds. Use glue or use heavy-duty Velcro to affix to the walls.”


Flooring: Get rid of musty old carpet and paint the floor a new color, like At Vermilion’s design team did. For areas where you need carpet, modular carpet tiles or vinyl tiles work well.


Spend Smart: Spend the money on the most important parts of your business, including good visible signage and the bathrooms.

At Vermilion
When Rohini Dey purchased a lease from the owner of a defunct French restaurant in Midtown Manhattan with a highly stylized gypsy theme, he had two options: Demolish the existing restaurant space and start from scratch, or cobble together something new with the pieces already in place. With a tight construction schedule of six weeks and an even tighter budget, Dey decided to revamp the existing space to create the new restaurant/lounge At Vermilion.

“To open in time, we strategically kept as many elements [as possible] from the old space, yet still gave it a completely new image. It was a very careful balancing act,” explains Pam Lamaster-Millett, principal with Chicago-based Searl Lamaster Howe Architects (SLHA). 

To save money, if the guests didn’t see it — like the kitchen and office — it didn’t change. Then the SLHA team took careful stock of what they could keep and what had to go. All of the window treatments were removed to create a “raw, exposed” look, Lamaster-Millett explains, while hardwood floors were refinished with a new gray color to add to the modern appeal. Other touches included removing carpeting from stairs and adding stone flooring at the entryway. The team kept the configuration of the existing bar but stripped off existing wood paneling and added a new top. The designers also de-emphasized a red leather wall by overlaying it with some high-end photography. Finally, keeping with the modern theme, existing chandeliers were covered with metallic screens.

In addition to saving money, there was no long wait for new materials to arrive, and without heavy-duty construction happening, the team didn’t have to worry about a slew of building regulations. “We were able to avoid pulling a lot of permits, which saved a lot of time and money,” she says.

Across the country, when Steve Billings, the owner of San Diego’s U-31 Cocktail Lounge, decided to add food to the menu at U-31, he wanted a new vibe to go along with it. The goal here was to take the nightclub feel down a notch to appeal to a decidedly different early evening crowd, explains color designer Jennifer Guerin, owner of JG Color Studios.    

“When you’re on a budget, there is a lot of stuff that can be easily done that has big impact,” explains Guerin, a finalist on the fourth season of HGTV’s “Design Star.”

U-31 Cocktail Lounge

A little money, a splash of color and a lot of creativity can go a long way in transforming a venue, like design teams did with New York City's At Vermilion (above) and San Diego's U-31 Cocktail Lounge (left).

A huge mural covered the club’s back wall, but it didn’t fit with the club’s new, more sophisticated feel. Additionally, the club also had some circular tables Billings didn’t like. So, finding a price-savvy way to fix the situation, Billings and Guerin opted to cut the legs off the tables and hang the tabletops on the wall with some backlighting to create an entirely new look.

They swapped out the drapery for bamboo fabric, which costs a little more but adds intrigue, Guerin says, and added a photo booth to create a point of interest and reorient where guests focus their attention. Also, the team wrapped the bar in a wood veneer to match the metallic shine of some of the flooring, Guerin says.

Finally, they toned down the original bright colors of the space, allowing U-31 to become an environment more suitable to multiple dayparts. “Color is critical. It creates a mood and the ambiance needed to really set the stage,” she says.

While some operators looking to redesign on a dime may balk at the idea of hiring a designer, Guerin notes that doing so may actually be a cost-saving measure, as a designer may get discounts unavailable to the general public.

But whether you’re bringing in a designer for a complete overhaul or just making some well-planned updates, keeping a venue’s look fresh will also keep it top of mind for patrons — which helps boost your bottom line. NCB


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